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60 Minutes Whips Up “Havana Syndrome” Hysteria, Airs Sensational Segment on White House “Attacks”

“I will leave it to you as to whether the truth can exist with details omitted.” — Robin Hobb

On February 20, 2022, one of the most storied names in broadcast journalism — the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, aired a segment on “Havana Syndrome” — a cluster of mysterious health complaints among U.S. and Canadian diplomats and their families in Cuba that have been attributed to a microwave weapon. First reported in Havana in late 2016, over 1,000 cases have since been recorded around the world. The episode was rife with dramatic claims including the suggestion that a nefarious foreign power is behind the “attacks” and may have breached White House security with the capacity to zap the President and his cabinet with an incapacitating energy beam. At least 20 children of diplomats were said to be possible victims, some on American soil.1

“Attacked” Near the White House

Former homeland security advisor Olivia Troye told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley that during the summer of 2019 she was descending a stairwell near the White House when she suddenly felt a piercing sensation on the right side of her head, vertigo, and nausea. She said it was as if “she had been physically struck” by an outside force that rendered her disoriented and struggling to stand. She compared it to a panic attack and wondered if she was having a stroke. She even worried it might be a brain tumor. About a year later she experienced another episode while walking to her car at the White House when she was overcome with dizziness and vertigo. “I felt like I couldn’t really walk. …I had a depth perception issue where I couldn’t figure out where the ground was. And I would start walking. And I felt like I was just gonna fall right into the ground.” Later she experienced a third episode. She never sought treatment or reported it to authorities at the time.

That alone should set off skeptical alarm bells. Just imagine — you are a national security advisor to the Vice President of the United States. One day you are walking near the White House and you believe you may have been hit with a … mysterious energy beam that leaves you incapacitated and barely able to walk, and your response is to do nothing — you neither seek medical attention nor report it to your superiors. This reaction raises the possibility that the symptoms may have been unconsciously embellished over time. Her symptoms are neither unique nor extraordinary. There are a host of common conditions that could account for her symptoms which affect the vestibular system of the inner ear, which is responsible for hearing, balance and spatial awareness including depth perception. It is estimated that 35 percent of all adults over 40 will experience vestibular dysfunction, and Troye’s symptoms are among those most commonly reported.2 As medical students are taught: if you hear hoof steps, think horse, not zebra. There are many well-known medical conditions far more common than secret sonic weapons, which as far as we know do not exist.

Children Stricken in Their Beds

60 Minutes reported that over 20 children of diplomats abroad have experienced “unexplained neurological ailments” that were attributed to Havana Syndrome.3 In one case, a mother was supposedly attacked while breastfeeding and both mother and baby were subsequently diagnosed with “traumatic brain injury.” It’s all very nebulous as no details of their injuries were given or how they knew it was an attack. Another victim was Robyn Garfield who claimed that while stationed in China in 2018, he and his wife and two children were “attacked” in their home over several months. After being evacuated stateside where they were receiving treatment for their “injuries” at the University of Pennsylvania, he said his family was again targeted at a nearby hotel. “I saw an extremely eerie scene where both were thrashing in their beds asleep…kicking and moving pretty aggressively,” he said. Could this have been a sonic or microwave weapon at work? A more mundane explanation is sleep or night terrors, which affect up to half of all children and are triggered by an array of factors including stress.4 When he leaned down to lift his children from their beds, he was mystified by a noise that resembled “rushing water.” While the implication was it may have been a secret weapon, the Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia reports that tinnitus is often perceived as “water running.”5 One audiologist even wrote an article about it titled “Is the Water Running or is it Tinnitus?”6

Again, what’s more likely: tinnitus or a secret sonic weapon of unknown origin or existence?

A Canadian diplomat stationed in Havana in 2017 told 60 Minutes that on three separate occasions, her daughter woke up with heavy nose bleeds and later developed migraines, tinnitus, and “spotting in her vision” (eye floaters). Her son complained of hearing problems and dizziness. These are common symptoms experienced by millions of people every day. In this case, after the Canadian diplomats had been alerted to the threat of a mysterious weapon by their American counterparts, they were primed to redefine an array of common ailments under a new label — Havana Syndrome. This case highlights the broad range of symptoms that are said to make up the condition: headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, depression, nose bleeds, disorientation, confusion, forgetfulness, insomnia, tinnitus, difficulty balancing, trouble concentrating, ear pain, head pressure, hearing loss, concussion-like symptoms, and brain damage. The latter three complaints have never been demonstrated in published patient studies of the U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and when you remove them from the list, what is left are the classic symptoms of mass psychogenic illness.

Omissions of Inconvenient Truths

The 60 Minutes segment was devoid of alternative explanations from skeptics, and made numerous references to brain injuries, including to the more than two dozen U.S. diplomats in Cuba who were affected. Physicist James Benford was touted as an expert on microwaves, who said there were portable microwave transmitters that were capable of damaging brain tissue. Yet there is no evidence that microwaves can injure the brain without affecting external tissues, and the damage should show up on MRI scans.

As well, the CBS program failed to mention that the authors of the very first study of Havana patients published in 20187 found no brain damage. While there were white matter tract changes in 3 of 21 patients, these are common in many conditions, including migraines and depression. The findings are what one would expect in a group of 21 randomly selected people. They also botched their assessment for impairment, defining it as any test score under the 40th percentile of normal responses. In other words, 4 out of 10 people tested would have qualified as being impaired.8 The study was so flawed that the editorial board of the respected journal Cortex called for it to be retracted.9

A 2019 study in the same journal found brain anomalies, which is not unusual in small cohorts, and is not the equivalent of brain damage. The study authors even admitted that the changes could have been caused by individual variation between patients. Of even greater concern was the absence of a suitable control group, as 12 of the affected diplomats in Cuba had histories of concussion compared to zero in the healthy controls, and could thus account for the differences between the groups.10 The bottom line: both studies were poorly designed and neither demonstrated brain damage despite continued widespread claims in the media to the contrary.

The Outlier

Dr. David Relman, who headed a National Academy of Sciences committee on “Havana Syndrome,” told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley that his panel found “clear evidence of an injury to the auditory and vestibular system.” The panel looked mainly at the U.S. diplomats in Cuba. But Neurologist Robert Baloh examined the same patient studies and is unconvinced. Baloh wrote the standard textbook on the vestibular system and created some of the tests used to study the U.S. diplomats in Cuba. “The hearing tests were normal and the vestibular test results are non-specific and impossible to interpret without appropriate controls,” he said. “As an expert in the audio-vestibular system, I see no convincing evidence of damage to that system based on any of the data that has been published.”11

Relman’s panel looked at a small subset of cases where there was an abrupt onset of pressure or vibration in the head that was sometimes accompanied by the sudden onset of sound. They latched onto the point that several patients told them the sound or feeling of pressure “came from one direction and focused in one location.” For instance, Miles Taylor said the sound was “continuous” and “only changed based on my location.” Both Baloh and Cuban neurologist Mitchell Valdez-Sosa point out that these reports are not unusual as it is the nature of sound to be perceived as coming from one direction. Valdez-Sosa observes that in the cases of anomalous health incidents that the Cubans were allowed to study, the sources of the unusual sounds turned out to have prosaic sources such as water pumps, the humming from streetlights, etc. “Angst about these ‘directional sounds’ had linked them in the patient’s minds to symptoms. The ‘special cases’ who felt ill in Havana all knew each other and shared their fears and theories” resulting in real symptoms from ordinary medical conditions and psychogenic induction, he said.12 An analysis of eight recordings of Cuban “attacks” conducted by auditory scientists concluded they were the mating calls of crickets.13 As for the likelihood that the audio recordings of the sounds heard were associated with microwaves, it is not possible to make audio recordings of microwaves.

The CIA Reports

On January 20, 2022, the contents of an ongoing CIA investigation into “Havana Syndrome” was made public; it held that there was no evidence that a foreign power was involved in a campaign to target U.S. personnel. After reviewing over 1,000 cases of “anomalous health incidents,” it found that most could be explained by an array of factors ranging from anxiety to pre-existing health conditions. In a small number of cases there was not enough information with which to make an assessment, and these cases were classified as unexplained and are still under investigation.14 This is reminiscent of past studies of UFOs by the U.S. Government where a small number of cases have been flagged as “unexplained” due to a lack of information. Unexplained does not mean extraterrestrial. Conversely, the presence of unfamiliar sounds should not be assumed to be confirmation of a secret energy weapon.

About two weeks after the interim CIA findings were released, a small outside advisory panel to the CIA concluded that the most likely explanation for the small number of unexplained cases was “pulsed electromagnetic energy.” While an official familiar with the report said the involvement of a foreign actor was “more than theory — we were able to obtain some level of evidence,” they were forced to admit that “significant information gaps” existed.15 These findings mirrored those of the National Academy of Sciences report of December 2020. Curiously, the head of the advisory panel was the same person who oversaw the Academy’s committee — David Relman.16 In statistics, an outlier is a data point that varies significantly from other observations. Conspicuously, Relman’s two panels are the only investigations to reach the conclusions they have about the likely involvement of microwave radiation, brain injury and the presence of a foreign actor.

The ECREE Principle: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof

Relman’s advisory panel claimed there were four features reported by a small number of victims indicating something remarkable occurred. 1) the sudden onset of sound or pressure; 2) “nearly simultaneous” symptoms such as vertigo, loss of balance and ear pain; 3) “a strong sense of locality or directionality” to those symptoms; and 4) the absence of any known environmental or medical conditions that could have caused them. The panel noted that the combination of all four “is distinctly unusual and unreported elsewhere in the medical literature, and so far have not been associated with a specific neurological abnormality.” Yet these cases may have a social patterning. It is important to remember that the victims in Cuba, and later globally, were primed to think that they may be the targets of an attack and to be vigilant for the signs of an energy weapon that was believed to prompt health complaints — a weapon that supposedly involved an unfamiliar sound.

In our book on Havana Syndrome, Professor Baloh and I reviewed the literature on “The Hum,” a mysterious sound that has been heard all over the world. Many people report experiencing an array of health complaints after hearing it. The sound is widely accepted to have a variety of natural causes, ranging from industrial machinery to tinnitus. Dr. Baloh recently re-examined the cases and found remarkable similarities with the descriptions in Relman’s advisory panel. “People would suddenly develop and even awake with strange sensations of pressure and vibration along with the noise which had many different descriptions. Many described the sensations as so severe they could not stand it. They experienced the same symptoms reported by the Havana syndrome patients and they noted that if they left the room the symptoms improved or resolved only to recur on reentering the room. Often others in the same room did not hear the sounds or develop symptoms.”17

David Relman is a microbiologist; he is not an expert on microwave weapons, auditory neurology or mass psychogenic illness — which may explain why his panels have reached different conclusions to the main CIA working group, the FBI, and a group of elite scientists known as the Jason group. While Relman’s advisory panel claims to have identified a perplexing pattern in a small number of special cases, the main CIA investigation looked at the same information and drew the opposite conclusion — that the symptoms reported were not caused by pulsed microwave radiation or a hostile foreign actor. The FBI reached a similar conclusion and implicated mass psychogenic illness — something that Relman’s panel said “cannot account for the core characteristics.”18 A 2021 report by the Jason scientists found no evidence for “a novel medical syndrome” and “no strong evidence” of traumatic brain injury — directly contradicting the findings of Relman’s advisory panel.19 Relman also claims there was clear evidence of damage to the auditory and vestibular systems when specialists who have devoted their careers to studying these systems, are adamant that no evidence of damage has been demonstrated.

The Bigger Picture

“Havana Syndrome” is the latest in a long list of health scares involving the fear of new technology. Recent examples include mobile phones, powerlines, windfarms, WiFi, and 5G. The present panic involves claims of a secret weapon that uses sound or microwaves to zap people anywhere in the world. Given the sensational nature of the 60 Minutes episode with suggestions of White House attacks, and ongoing political tensions with Russia — the suspected culprit, it would not be surprising to see a cluster of cases in the vicinity of the White House — or other government institutions as officials working there have been primed to be vigilant for anomalous health incidents.

For the past five years, the investigation of Havana Syndrome has been mired in politics. The time has come to listen to the voices of the intelligence community and put the episode to rest. After all this time, a weapon has yet to be identified. There is no smoking gun. There never was one. There is only smoke and mirrors generated by bad science and poor journalism. END

About the Author

Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has written numerous books on the margins of science covering UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot, lake monsters—all from a perspective of mainstream science. He has lived with the Malay people in Malaysia, and Aborigines in Central Australia. He is the co-author of 2 seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans (Anomalist Books, 2009), and Havana Syndrome with Robert W. Baloh (Copernicus Books, 2020).

References
  1. Pelley, Scott. 2022. “Havana Syndrome: High-level national security officials stricken with unexplained illness on White House grounds.” February 20, accessed at: https://cbsn.ws/3MfZaLR
  2. “Dizziness and Balance Problems Related to Vision.” Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association: https://bit.ly/3IEsRnQ
  3. Farmer, Brit, Rey, Michael, and Zill De Granados, Oriana. 2022. “The Youngest Victims of ‘Havana Syndrome.’” 60 Minutes Overtime, February 20: https://cbsn.ws/3IF3X7q
  4. Moreno, Megan. 2015. “Sleep Terrors and Sleepwalking: Common Parasomnias of Childhood.” JAMA Pediatrics 69(7):704. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.2140
  5. ”Tinnitus.” National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus: https://bit.ly/3Ck3sgV
  6. Valkenburg, Daria. 2019. “Is the Water Running or is it Tinnitus?” The Aural Report, accessed at: https://bit.ly/3IFYi0T
  7. Swanson, R. L., Hampton, S., Green-McKenzie, J., Diaz-Arrastia, R., Grady, M. S., Verma, R., Biester, R., Duda, D., Wolf, R. L. & Smith, D. H. 2018. “Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba,” February 15. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.1742
  8. Della Sala, Sergio, Cubelli, Robert. 2018. Alleged ‘sonic attack’ supported by poor neuropsychology. Cortex 2018;103:387–8. https://bit.ly/35ilMLg
  9. Cortex Editorial Board. 2018. Responsibility of neuropsychologists: the case of the ‘sonic attack’. Cortex 108:A1–2. https://bit.ly/344Nydm
  10. Ragini V, Swanson, RL, Parker D, Ismail A, Shinohara RT, Alappatt JA, et al. 2019. “Neuroimaging findings in US government personnel with possible exposure to directional phenomena in Havana, Cuba.” JAMA 322(4):336–47. July 23. https://bit.ly/3vwuVKT
  11. Baloh, Robert. 2022. Personal communication, February 23.
  12. Valdez-Sosa, Mitchell. 2022. Personal communication, February 28.
  13. “Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study conducted for the State Department.
  14. Harris, Shane, and Ryan, Missy. 2022. “CIA finds no ‘Worldwide Campaign’ by any foreign power behind mysterious ‘Havana Syndrome.’” Washington Post, January 20.
  15. Dilanian, Ken, and Lederman, Josh. 2022. “’Havana Syndrome in small group most likely caused by directed energy, says U.S. intel panel.” NBC News, February 3: https://nbcnews.to/3vx0bZV
  16. Harris, Shane. 2022. “External energy source may explain ‘Havana syndrome,’ panel finds, renewing questions about possible foreign attack.” Washington Post, February 2.
  17. Baloh, Robert. 2022. Personal communication, February 23.
  18. Harris, Shane. 2022. “Panel says radio energy may explain ‘Havana Syndrome.’” Washington Post, February 3.
  19. “An Analysis of Data and Hypotheses Related to the EmbassyIncidents,” November 7, 2021. Study conducted on behalf of the U.S. State Department (JASON study group).
 
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